As first-timers (newbies, neophyte cruisers, etc.), my wife and I decided that a cruise would make for a nice honeymoon after being married recently. Even though we live in San Diego, we opted for the Carnival Pride based upon its Sunday sailings, rather than wait a couple more days and sail out of San Diego on its sister ship, the Carnival Spirit. It was a very good decision! Here are some observations from a first-time cruiser:
EMBARKATION: Though a bit confusing at first, the general traffic flow does move passengers through the Long Beach terminal reasonably well. Do not be intimidated by the long line snaking out of the domed terminal building, back toward the Queen's Village shops. Once inside, the line splits into two security lines and then -- after the security check, both pass into the check-in lobby. **TIP** Save time (as we did) with Carnival's online "Fun Pass" pre-clearance processing. Once checked in, it is just matter of a couple of minutes to walk onto the ship. Allow one hour to check in.
Initial IMPRESSIONS: The first thing that struck me was how spotlessly CLEAN the ship was. Ship staff work very hard to keep things cleaned up, washed down, polished, etc. From the housekeeping staff to the wait staff others, I never saw stray litter, cigarette butts nor any other debris in public places. Clean, clean clean...cleaner than Disneyland!!! Also, Carnival earns a huge measures of credit for their corporate culture that fosters a sense of pride and genuine friendliness amongst the entire Carnival Pride staff and officers. The politeness and cheerfulness were not forced, but very genuine -- like being a member of the family.
CRUISE DIRECTOR: Greg Kneale is a man that loves his job, and is perhaps one of the funniest persons you will ever meet. Regardless of the presentation or activity, he is very tongue-in-cheek and makes for a great emcee. If you have never met Greg, he looks like the late Senator Joseph McCarthy but sounds more like comedian John Cleese of "Monthly Python" fame. Don't miss his Travel Talk early in the week, nor the hilarious "Newlywed (Not so Newlywed) Game" on Saturday!
DINING: I want to affirm what others have written about the quality of the food, especially in the Normandie Dining Room. There are always plenty of menu options to choose from for each meal, so you will not be disappointed. Service and presentation are akin to a nicer three- or four-star restaurant. Dining room wait staff are organized into teams of a headwaiter and his or her assistant. Our wait staff team of Agapito and Emilio were exceptionally good and very attentive, cheerful and engaging. We never did dine in David's supper club, adopting the conventional wisdom of not paying extra for meals when other dining options were available at no extra charge. As for the buffets, I thought that the quality of the food was very much above-average for a buffet and not too under- or over-cooked. The buffet menu options were many.
SHORE EXCURSIONS: Our first port of call was Puerto Vallarta and my wife and I opted for the Tequila and Old Town tour. Essentially, we went out into the beautiful countryside by air-conditioned tour bus, to the Doña Engracia tequila distillery, to learn how tequila is made (and also to taste different tequilas, much like a wine-tasting). That tour also took us to a second, more rustic tequila distillery just north of Puerto Vallarta across the state line in Nayrit state. It was a lot of fun. We opted for no formal tours in Mazatlan, but did take a "pulmonia" -- an open-air taxi built from an old Volkswagen Beetle chassis. These are a fun way to see the city, as the ship docks at the ship channel on one side of the city and the Zona Dorada ("Golden Zone") is 10 miles across town. Be sure to agree on the fare with the cab driver ahead of time, as some will try to talk you into other stops or routings for additional fare even once enroute. In Cabo, the must-see tour is the Sali and Beach tour, which takes you around the Land's End ("Los Arcos") area up close and then once back on shore, you are transported by bus across town to the Tabasco Beach area near the resorts for swimming and such. On the way back to the tender pier be sure to get off of the bus downtown in front of Cabo Wabo Cantina for some shopping options, as the pier is a short 10 minute walk from there.
DEBARKATION: This is the ugliest part of the whole week. Let's face it, there is no elegant way to offload over 2,000 passengers and their luggage in any fast manner. But, in zoning passengers by deck, Carnival has found the next-best strategy, which also prevents huge bottlenecks at the immigration station inside the terminal. Expect to wait anywhere from two to three hours for your group to get called off of the ship after arrival. We were in the Upper Deck Forward (green) group and did not get called until about 10:15 a.m. Once through the immigration checkpoint, it's just a matter of picking up the luggage downstairs in the main hall (segregated by zone) and then dropping off the customs declaration on the way out of the building.
HINTS: • If being met by someone picking you up in Long Beach, pre-arrange where to meet them outside of the terminal building. • Carnival's "Fun Fountain Card" sells for approx. $44.00 and allows unlimited soft drinks all week from any ship's bar. Otherwise, you will be paying $1.00 or more each time you want one -- whether by the pool, at dinner or whenever else. • The ship's photography staff is quite good and options abound for having your photo taken. If you have considered having a formal portrait done, the onboard prices are not that bad. You are under no obligation to purchase any photo taken of you. • Avoid the temptation to get the fruity alcoholic drinks poolside -- you know, the one's with the cute little umbrellas in them. $6.95 is not a bargain for the "drink of the day," regardless of the recipe.